Paella – since long an icon of Spanish gastronomy, is also one of the most internationally recognizable Spanish dishes. Traditionally, it is the dish that is served at gatherings of family or friends bringing the people together around the table.
Authentic Valencian Meat Paella Recipe is Here!
While origins of the Paella are still subject of hot debates, being realistic, we have to accept the fact that most details are lost in the “darkness” of the remote past. The rice was brought to Europe in the 3rd century BC at the time of conquest of Asia by armies of Alexander the Great. Later with the expansion of Roman Imperium, rice made the journey to the eastern coast of the Iberian Peninsula. It’s then plausible to believe that some early “poor-man” versions of paella emerged so early. Most historians agree however, that right conditions for paella appeared several centuries later under the rules of Moors. Arabs not only developed irrigation systems (crucial for cultivation of rice on a larger scale). They also brought an essential ingredient for rice-based dishes: Saffron. However, there are no written documents from those times mentioning paella as a dish.
First written documents revealing existence (popularity as the matter of fact) of rice-based dishes in Southern Europe are from the 15th and 16th century. While they do not specifically mention paellas, they point to Italian risottos popularized by Venetian merchants. The first document (sort of “recipe” of paella) dates to 18th century. It describes a dish called “Valencian Rice”, prompting to believe that at those times it was already a popular dish, that later became known as “Paella”.
The name “Paella” seems to be derived from the Latin word for “frying pan” (“paella” in Catalan, “padilla” in Castilian, “padella” in Italian, “poêle” in modern and “paelle” in old French – to keep this list short). In particular, this Latin word refers to a wide, flat and shallow pan (plate) with two handles. The pan that became irreversibly associated with the dish paella.
It seems however that originally, the dish was known as “Arroz Valenciano” or “Arroz á la Valenciana” and only with time it took the name of the metal container in which it was prepared. Actually, in some areas the dish was even known as “Arroz a la Paella”, so reducing it to shorter and more practical name “paella” was rather a natural process. For the record – it was in 1840 when for the first time the Valencian newspaper used the word “Paella” in reference to the recipe of this rice-based dish!
Because the metal container “paella” is so important part of the successful preparation process that it may be worth to mention few words about it. Good quality Paelleras should be made from iron (cast iron preferred) or polished steel. They must be shallow and wide (the diameter depends on number of people invited for fiesta). Such design allows for fast evaporation of the broth and uniform absorption of flavors by the rice. But at the same time, it also minimizes the risk of overcooking the latter (overcooked rice loses ability to retain aromas!).
BTW- in Spain the container for preparation of “paella” is commonly known as “paellera”. It seems to be a rare example of the etymological process in which first the dish “Arroz a la Valenciana” took its name from the Latin word describing the general-use frying pan (“Padella”) then gave it back to a special frying pan designed specifically for cooking the ‘Valencian Rice’.
For those looking for more romantic story behind the name “paella” there is another explication. The word “paella” can be considered as an abbreviation from “para ella” (“for her”) and then the conclusion is simple. Once upon the time, a young man wanted to impress his sweetheart and as we all know, a great dish can “do the job”. Add to that fiesta romantic candles (obvious choice at those remote times) and glasses of red wine (also abundant in Spain) and you have the perfect date with your “lady”. To prove this scenario, some point out that till today, traditionally paella is prepared by the man. While today it may not be too strange, we have to note that the Spanish society was very conservative. Indeed, till mid-20th century, a typical Spanish husband did not really even know how to boil the water for tea, so under normal circumstances expecting him to make so complex and time requiring dish was totally unrealistic (unless the “Love” comes into equation). Well, we leave our readers to choose their favorite scenario…..
Since long fertile lands near Valencia and availability of water (especially the area of Lake Albufera) contributed to the development of agriculture. With that came the need of farmers and herders for an easy-to-make, highly caloric afternoon meal. Easy to make also implied inexpensive local ingredients. While good selection of vegetables was not a problem in rural areas, the access to cattle’s meat was very limited and expensive. No wonder that farmers used what they had on hand: birds (domesticated but also wild), rabbits (hares) and snails. Over the time, this limited set of necessary ingredients shaped the recipe for the Valencian paella.
As expected, over the following centuries the dish was “evolving”, selection of original ingredients was broadened and the paella was slowly losing its original Valencian character. In order to stop this process, the group of prestigious Valencian restaurants initiated the research program designed to define what exactly is the Valencian Paella. In 2012 they came to the final conclusion, publishing the official recipe for the traditional “Arroz a la Valencian” (paella).
Traditional Valencian Paella requires ten basic ingredients, correspondingly: meat (chicken, rabbit), green beans (locally known as “bajoqueta” or “tavella” – typically “rotjet” and “ferraura”), carob (white, flat bean), tomato, rice, olive oil, saffron, water and salt. It may also include such ingredients as Serrano snails called “xoneta” (popular and easily available in the past, today rather expensive), duck, garlic, artichoke, red paprika, “tavella” (small, creamy, white beans), garrafón (white bean) and rosemary. The choice of meat reflects the fact that centuries ago, the region of Valencia did not have a lot of livestock. As the result, popular these days cattle meat (cows, sheep, pork) was expensive and not easily available. However small animals like chicken, wild rabbits, ducks and snails were quite abundant, so naturally they became fundamental ingredients of early paellas.
Traditionally the saffron was used to add the flavor and the reddish hue. These days it is a quite pricey ingredient, so often (especially in inexpensive restaurants) it is substituted with red paprika (pimiento) and rosemary.
Among variety of rice available on the market only some are suitable for the traditional paella. The rice should have short to medium-size round grains (arroz redonda), have ability to absorb water without breaking or becoming mushy (in other words stay firm during cooking) and retain flavors. The most popular categories of rice meting these requirements are senia, bahfa, thaibonne and bomba. The latter (often referred to as a “Valencian Rice”) due to its excellent qualities is probably the best (and the most expensive) one.
The traditional cooking process required firewood and a tripod to suspend the paellera above the fire. Commonly used orange wood (mixed with other aromatic woods like rosemary, thyme etc…) was adding to the dish a slightly smoky flavor, enhancing its richness. Obviously, these days you can still make your paella traditional way in your own garden (if you have one), however overwhelmingly paellas (even these home-made) are cooked over the gas. Given the large diameter of the paellera and requirement to uniformly apply the heat, you will need either a so-called “paellero” (large set of concentric burners used commercially) or a special “adapter” that connects to one of the burners of the typical gas stove at home).
And just if you forgot that Spain is not only the land of paella but also of wine – the ideal way to reinforce paella’s Valenciana character and flavors will be accompanying the dish with a bottle of a young red or darker pink wine.
During the 18th-19th centuries, paella spread over the territory of Spain as well as across the borders. The dish became very popular in Belgium under the names correspondingly “Riz á la Valencienne” and “Paella Grand Royale”. But it was just the beginning of the triumphant journey of paella across the world. Today with hundreds of new variants of the dish, paella reached worldwide fame but at the same time it lost its Valencian character.
Obviously, many of its exotic versions have nothing common with the traditional paella (may be only the rice). Among all these variants only few achieved due recognition. One of them is a seafood paella (Paella de Marisco). It has also roots in the region of Valencia where it emerged in the early 19th century (not surprising given the fact that Valencia has long Mediterranean coastline). Compared to the traditional dish (sometimes called a “peasant paella), in paella de marisco all meat (and meat-based broth) is replaced by seafood, fish and correspondingly – seafood-based broth. Interestingly, early versions of paella de Marisco were based on eel, now it is more a mixture including shrimps, squid, clams, mussels, crayfish etc… Also, compared to the traditional paella, de Marisco one omits beans and green vegetables.
Another popular version of paella (but not in the area of Valencia) is the so-called “Mixed Paella”. Purists (but also connoisseurs) rightfully point out that mixing meat with fish and seafood (as it is done in “mixed paella”) brakes all traditional cooking rules and so it is a sort of culinary “barbarian” act! BTW – what kind of wine you will chose with mixed paella? Well, maybe it’s an opportunity to have two glasses of wine (red and white)?
Understandably, Valencian people are terrified by such combination, but let’s face it – with the “internationalization” of the dish many think that you can throw on the paellera any ingredient according to your personal taste and frankly, there is nothing wrong with it (just do not call it “Paella Valenciana”, please).